Often overshadowed by team-mate Mohamed Salah’s debut season, Sadio Mane burst back into the spotlight as the first Senegalese player to hit a Champions League hat-trick in Liverpool’s 5-0 demolition of Porto.
Salah and Roberto Firmino were also on target on Wednesday as Liverpool’s three lightning-quick forwards took their joint tally for the season to 63 goals.
Mane scored the first, third and last goals at the Estadio Dragao as Liverpool virtually ensured a first Champions League quarter-final for nine years, with the second leg at Anfield now a formality.
“Everyone is always talking about the three, but the team make (it) easier because without the team we are nothing,” said a smiling Mane, with the match ball cradled in his arms.
“They do a great job behind (with) all they give us, and we are the lucky boys and we score all the time.”
Mane had been the least prolific member of a fast and furious Liverpool attack that has continued to sparkle despite the departure of Phillippe Coutinho to Barcelona for £142 million ($200 million) in January.
Mane had most often been the player sacrificed earlier in the season when Jurgen Klopp opted to go with only three of the “Fab Four”.
A year ago Mane, a £36-million signing from Southampton in 2016, seemed indispensable to Klopp’s rebuilding at Anfield.
His time at the African Cup of Nations coincided with a five-game winless run in January and February that ended any chance of a first Premier League title since 1990, while Klopp’s men were also dumped out of the FA Cup and League Cup.
– ‘Not jealous’ –
This season it has been Salah who has shone with his fleetness of foot and finishing ability, taking the Egyptian to 30 goals in just 36 games for the club — a record that helped Salah beat Mane to win African Player of the Year in January.
“It is a new situation, Mo Salah is in. They are best friends so he is not jealous, but it is like everybody is watching there now what is he doing,” said Klopp earlier this month.
Mane got the break he needed to open the scoring in Portugal thanks to an error from Porto goalkeeper Jose Se.
His confidence seemed to soar and he finished off a characteristic speedy counterattack led by Salah and Firmino for Liverpool’s third, before smashing home from outside the area to complete his hat-trick.
“He gave the right answer,” said Klopp. “I said to him after the last game ‘finally you are back’ when we met on the pitch, and tonight he showed it again what a fantastic player he is.
“He was always fantastic for us even in his not so good moments.
“That’s the real quality if you are not on your 100 percent and still scoring, maybe not that often. If you keep on working really hard it will come, like he did. There can be a moment like this.”
Mane’s historic feat did not go unnoticed in his native Senegal, where the 25-year-old is expected to provide the inspiration for his nation at this year’s World Cup.
“Mane spits fire in the Dragon’s stadium” and “historic hat-trick” were among the headlines in the Senegalese press.